Identity Crisis: An Essay about the Current State of Art Jewellery and the Future of it

Published: 24.04.2014
Identity Crisis: An Essay about the Current State of Art Jewellery and the Future of it.
Ezra Satok-Wolman
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I began to write this paper in the autumn of 2013 and am quite pleased with my decision to take my time. I had apprehensions about declaring the end or “perversion” of Art jewellery, and questioned whether anyone would even take me seriously.

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1. Preface / Introduction
2. Auto-erotic asphyxiation
3. Defining and Distinguishing
4. The Bubble
5. Identity Crisis
6. Golden Age / Conclusion


I began to write this paper in the autumn of 2013 and am quite pleased with my decision to take my time. I had apprehensions about declaring the end or “perversion” of Art jewellery, and questioned whether anyone would even take me seriously. Publishing this paper on the heels of Lisbeth den Besten’s The Golden Standard of Schmuckashau,’ or Ted Noten’s
Manifesto,’ gave me nothing more than a feeling of reassurance, that I was doing the right thing, and on the right path. I couldn’t resist reading den Besten’s analysis, but made a conscious decision not to read Noten’s ‘Manifesto” until I was finished writing, in an effort to maintain purity in my paper. After a glance at Noten’s Manifesto, I quickly realized that I was seeing similar terminology, and numerous areas of overlap, as I too had been referring to Art Jewelry's “Dogmatic” set of rules in my notes, and the idea that what killed Art Jewellery was a complete disconnect with the public or “wearer.” That being said, I was determined to finish my own writing before continuing on with any further reading, and present my views without feeling like I had been overly influenced by what has already been said, or feel an obligation to respond to everything that has been written about Art Jewellery and its current state. I would like to begin by clarifying several misconceptions that have been made along the way. In André Gali’sAfter the End of Contemporary Jewellery,” Gali declares “the end of contemporary jewellery (sic).” This is of course untrue, as he was more likely referring to the end of “Art Jewellery.” However, Art Jewellery is far from dead. It is divergent, and may lose a limb or two to amputation, but it will continue to thrive and reinvent itself.

An object can be more than one thing at the same time. Jewellery is “allotropic” like carbon, and can exist as different things, just as carbon can be diamond, graphite, or coal. Jewellery is constantly evolving and has been doing so for over 25,000 years. One can only look backwards and say, “this is what was going on.” While it may be “Art Jewellery” today, tomorrow we may choose to look back and call it something else.

Contemporary Jewellery is the new jewellery of the time. As time goes on, contemporary jewellery changes. Before the Art Jewellery of today, there was the Padova School movement, and anyone who has followed along knows that the Art Jewellery of that movement is not the Art Jewellery of today, or yesterday for that matter. What came after the Padua movement, saw the focus shift away from the “art of the jewellery” to the “artist.” Conceptual Jewellery emerged and the voice of the artist eclipsed the objects themselves. While some may claim that material has been unimportant in the art jewellery dogma, I would have to disagree. I would go so far as to suggest that material became the focus and thus a part of the artist’s voice. In choosing to work with abstract materials, a statement about jewellery is made. Often that statement rings with anti-jewellery sentiment, in abandoning tradition in every sense. We could speak endlessly about what caused the transition from traditional to non traditional materials, but I am much more interested in analyzing the results or product of that transition.

Through the following sections, I will present an analysis of Art Jewellery, its current state, and what we can hope for in the future. I will conclude with a proposal for a “rebooting of the system,” and the first to be presented by a jewellery artist from “the general population,” rather than someone of elite or superstar status. While my views and opinions do overlap in some areas with aforementioned papers, my perspective is unique in that it is a viewpoint from someone who did not “buy in” to the movement. I have been working for some time outside the spectrum of Art Jewellery in many aspects, while maintaining an active role within the spectrum. The reason for this is largely due to the fact that my work did not “fit in” with Art Jewellery in many ways, and my idea of art jewellery certainly doesn’t fit within the dogma or “standard model.” Rather than adapt to fit in, which was tempting for a period, I have stuck to my artistic principles and produced work that I believe in.

After reading den Besten’s essay and manifesto published in Overview, I realized that while I did agree with many of her points, I did not agree with her manifesto. While her essay was a good analysis of what has “gone wrong” as she puts it, she suggests much of the same for the future that has created this mess to begin with. In fact her essay spends more time talking about specific exhibitions than the actual problem itself. It would seem as though while the problem has been identified, no one really wants to “break it down,” or make any real proposals for change.

Den Besten’s manifesto shifts the focus away from the jewellery and on to tactics for a successful commercial response. I interpret her declaration as message that states that Art Jewellery will be saved by “craft.” I think inversely, that we need to adjust our expectations to be more realistic, and accept the fact that Art Jewellery is not meant for the masses, nor the average person. It has been my experience that the average person wants the same diamond ring that everyone else has. The “average” person wants to “fit in” rather than stand out. That Art Jewellery is appreciated by only a small group of individuals who want “something special,” not the serial results of experiment, presented to them “in the streets” or “on subway platforms” as den Besten has proposed.

We have not failed in our efforts to communicate Art Jewellery to the public. That has been proven by the exponential growth of Art Jewellery, its related activities, and the number of institutions that now support it. What we have failed to do is provide content that people want to buy, wear, celebrate and connect with. We have “broken the circle of jewellery” by removing the wearer from the equation, not only by neglecting the wearability of jewellery, but by assuming that people will want to wear what we make just because “We” have made it. Todays art jewellery not only requires a tremendous amount of interpretation to understand, but much of it requires a sojourn in a mental institution to decipher what are often overly personal and disturbing declarations. Why did we think people would want to wear our emotional baggage on their bodies in the first place? Adornment is about the wearer, and often about making the wearer feel a certain way. More often than not people choose to wear a piece of jewellery because it makes them feel good, esthetically, or because of a sentimental connection “they” have with the piece. Art jewellery has abandoned the idea that jewellery should be beautiful, and replaced it with the decree that “Art Jewellery is what we say it is whether you want to wear it or not!” Can we really question why much of it isn’t selling? I often wonder whether galleries are representing the artists they represent because they believe in the work and think that they will have success selling it, or whether it is merely because they want to exhibit the flavor of the month.

Auto-erotic asphyxiation
The perversion of Art Jewellery was largely due to “academic incest,” cronyism, and introversion. But how does this relate to the deviant sexual act of auto-erotic asphyxiation? Quite simply, as Art Jewellery grew, it created a bubble around itself. As this bubble grew, those within it, continued to “pleasure themselves and each other,” creating a tightly knit socio-economic infrastructure. With little support, participation or economic stimulus from outside the bubble, the self pleasuring continued, while the air supply within the bubble diminished. I think it is also safe to say that the creative elements within the bubble were diminished, thus leading to the plethora of redundancy in the current collective catalogue of work. Work that would never leave the showcases was celebrated and praised, presenting a false sense of well being to the makers. Everyone has heard of auto-erotic asphyxiation, but most of us know that it can end in disaster. Art Jewellery has choked itself off from the rest of the world, and in order to regain an air supply, we need to burst the bubble and “let the poison out.”

Defining and Distinguishing
In order to speak clearly about all of this, we need to address the language and terminology we use to describe and discuss jewellery. When talking about these subjects we use words like art, craft, design, fashion and contemporary. These words have meanings on their own, but when used as adjectives in conjunction with jewellery, they take on very specific significances. Art Jewellery and Contemporary Jewellery for instance are often used synonymously, yet often suggest completely different things. Contemporary suggests a period of time, rather than a style of working or particular aesthetic. I feel it necessary to clarify this because as I previously pointed out, in referencing the end of Art Jewellery in Andre Gali’s article, he declares “the end of contemporary jewellery (sic).” This of course is untrue, as all jewellery produced with the materials or aesthetics of current times is contemporary.

It is my opinion that a grey area exists when distinguishing between Art Jewellery and Craft Jewellery. While there are different schools of thought in the art vs. craft debate, there are a few key points that I believe clearly establish the dividing line. First and foremost, art is produced solely for the sake of producing art. Whether the intention of the art is to convey a message, emotion, tell a story, or solely for the art to exist, the artist makes the work without thinking of anything but their creation. Art is something worth saving past its time, and hopefully able to withstand it (time). The word ‘Craft’ is used as a noun, as an adjective, and as a verb. Craft, although made by artisans, is produced for the sole purpose of commerce. Regardless of how well it is made, or what the concept is, the work is made to be sold, a dynamic that often impacts the overall quality of the work.

It was at Sieraad last fall that I realized how desperate the situation was. “Art Jewellery is selling out”, I declared to my wife. I had been speaking with a former student of one of the major Art Jewellery institutions, who had her own booth at the fair. She explained to me that her “edition” pieces were doing really well, selling at around €50 each. It struck me at that moment that we had reached the point where art jewelers were focused more than ever on finding ways, beyond their artistic practices, to generate income via “simple edition pieces”. I bring this up because it speaks for my argument about Art Jewellery vs. Craft Jewellery. It also demonstrates that what den Besten is suggesting in her Manifesto, has already been implemented and is failing. Even if the “edition” movement was successful, there would still be too much of it and the numbers still would not add up.

The Bubble
We hear talk of bubbles when speaking about economic growth, inflation, sustainability. But my reference to the bubble also deals with a social and creative aspect, in addition to the “brass tacks.” A bubble is an enclosed space, the interior and exterior worlds sealed off from one another. In the Art Jewellery scenario, the activities within the bubble were actually quite successful for a period. However, several things happen to a bubble beyond bursting, that are inevitability going to happen.

If today’s art jewelers can’t support themselves exclusively through the sale of their work, and rely on teaching or other means as their primary sources of income, how can we in good conscience be training students to enter this field? If there is little or no outside support, how can we in good conscience continue to grow this particular movement? Education is costly, and those who pursue a degree in art jewellery, which is incredibly common today, have expectations that a sustainable career in this field is possible. We have now all heard about the “Art Jewellery Conspiracy,” but perhaps it can be described more accurately as an “artificial reality.” The only conspiracy that occurred was the coverup that the “reality” could not be sustained.

At the point at which we open the books and have a look at the numbers, it becomes crystal clear and numbers don’t lie. Now more than ever, students are graduating from college and university programs focused on Art Jewellery. The market is more saturated than ever. Galleries are focused on selling inexpensive pieces, and makers are focused on supplying those pieces. Let’s say for arguments sake, the average piece of art jewellery sells for €200. The artist will receive approximately €100. Lets also project that the average personal annual income for someone holding a degree in Europe is approximately €20,000 to €25,000. Putting aside studio and material expenses, that means to even generate €25,000 an artist would need to sell 240 pieces of jewellery each year, or 20 pieces each month. These numbers are greatly simplified, and the sale prices would obviously fluctuate, but regardless, the ratio of the amount of work produced to the quantity and value of work sold is completely disjointed.

Why is this important? Well, just last year I had a private conversation with one of the most prolific art jewelers of our time. This individual indicated to me that they had sold only one piece the previous year. I was shocked, and immediately had to question whether we (the established collectors, galleries, museums, and aficionados) were the only people buying Art Jewellery. I began to suspect that the money that supports the bulk of the art jewellery scene must come from within it. If an artist with the absolute best representation and exposure can only sell a few pieces a year, how can we expect the rest of us to sell hundreds of pieces? The answer is not to produce more, nor is it to sell more. The answer is to focus on quality and to selling to the right people, not the greatest number of people.

I believe this is where the fork in the road emerges, Craft Jewellery in one direction, Art Jewellery in the other. I am by no means suggesting that we should avoid producing serial work. If that is a viable means of survival, then it is necessary. But to masquerade production craft work as art jewellery will only lead to the same breakdown. Maybe this was a wonderful experiment that resulted in us realizing that we don’t need as much art jewellery as we thought.

Schmuck has been used by others to represent the bubble archetype. For years now the same group of artists have assumed their ‘designated’ places in the annual exhibition. It is perhaps the greatest example of cronyism within the field. A jury member is selected from within the bubble and selects a group of fellow bubble members for the show. It is almost as if someones death is required to open up space for new blood. Den Besten describes the other exhibitions in Munich, curated around the central show, as unclear often resulting in groups that are assembled because artists are friends or like each other, with little regard for purpose or continuity. Is this the most effective way to select and present the best and brightest each year? After all these years, the art & design scene has finally taken note of the event, with Wallpaper Magazine commenting on this years edition for only the second time to date. In reference to Art Jewellery, Wallpaper describes this years selection as having “made sense of a genre that is always in danger of coming across like a mish mash of small-scale conceptual art.” This is far from praise, and Wallpaper’s choice of words has surely been intentional, stopping short of calling it “kitsch.”

Identity Crisis
Establishing an identity was very important to this jewellery movement. In doing so, clearly defined divisions were implemented to ensure the separation of Art Jewellery from fashion and design. To construct an identity based on what something is not, surely does not present a clear, defined personality. Following an unofficial set of Dogmatic rules, the identity was reinforced by exclusionary tactics, clearly defining what Art Jewellery was by identifying what it was not. It was not fashion, nor design. It was not about jewellery, but rather a statement about jewellery. Anything that too closely resembled tradition was out - absolutely excluded. It would seem as though shock value and “alternativism” influenced the selection of curators and dealers, with little regard for whether or not real content was present. I question whether this is “Pareidolia” at work?

In addition, price point seems to be a major factor when galleries consider what work to sell. Is this influencing the work that artists are producing? Are artists staying away from complex, or labour intensive works due to fear they won’t sell or be accepted by galleries? Has the shift towards alternative materials been a direct result of economics, rather than a true appreciation for what an artist can do with those materials? We seldom see artists mastering materials or dedicating time to research or invent new processes, as Peter Chang did with poly-plastics, Nel Linsen did with paper, the Padua School movement did with metals, or Ruudt Peters has done with his proprietary alchemical concoctions. We show more desire for instant gratification, gravitating towards the ‘ready made’, and grow tired of materials before they have truly been investigated or exploited. Anything that requires mastering has been abandoned for makeshift technique and gimmicks. The Art jewelers most vital tool has become a bottle of glue. I am not suggesting there isn’t incredible work being produced, or that there are no “Masters of their materials.” Artists like Zoe Robertson, Jie Sun, Wendy McAllister and Märta Mattsson have all demonstrated their command of the mediums they work with, and maintain our attention with real results.

We should also be very concerned with cultivating the Corvajas, Pavans ,and Pintons of the future, while germinating the next Peters, Künzlis, and Bielanders. I support art jewelry, and in no way mean to devalue the “new or alternative.” In fact, this coming summer I will travel from Canada to The Netherlands to participate in Ruudt Peters’ ‘Face Now’ workshop. I believe in Ruudt’s Art Jewellery idiom, and have a great amount of respect for the contributions he has made to the movement over the decades. Yet I can’t help but question what will these “new” materials will look like in 10, 20, 50 years, after plastics and resins have faded and discolored, wood has split and splintered, glues have eroded away? What do our pieces made from repurposed packaging, or the plethora of other repurposed products and byproducts that constitute the “new materials” say about our desire to glorify anything and everything man made? Will people look back and view it as jewellery made of garbage, or a glorification of all things artificial? What does that say about our culture? It would appear as though we are celebrating ‘consumptionism,’ rather than making real statements about our societal tendencies towards excess, or our moral bankruptcy. To those who don’t “speak jewellery” the message may appear to be contradictory or counterproductive. Jewellery has always been an excellent artifact and has enabled us to glean information about our history on this planet. Have we abandoned all desire to leave a mark of significant value in our own geological time period? The reality is, much of todays “new jewellery” won’t physically survive beyond 10 or 20 years, and will essentially erase itself from this chapter of jewellery’s history. Jewellery is archival and the legacy we leave will be our mark on the timeline forever.

Must we abandon “JEWELRY” and its artistic merit to support the “conceptual”? Is it not wise to present the full story, and a broad range of artistic approaches to the public we so desperately wish to educate? Being a good jewellery artist requires the ability to synthesize an artistic concept with good design. Jewellery should be functional, and therefore falls under the blanket of the applied arts. The ability to successfully incorporate an element of fine art into that design results in a successful piece of art jewellery. Part of that synthesis relies on the artists ability to understand the mechanics of jewellery. Those of us who work in gold, or make use of gemstones, are not the “bling mongers” Art Jewellery sought to prosecute. We too despise that industry. But the public who seeks out that jewelry will never be won over by Art Jewelry. They are not our target market, and therefore, none of us are directly competing with the commercial jewelry industry. The population that supports art, artisans, and craftspeople, is small, distinct, and already knows better than to support “factory made.”

It is quite possible that as I stated earlier, jewellery is “allotropic,” and therefore if we can isolate what exactly Art Jewellery is, we will find that it is more than one thing. If Art Jewellery isn’t based on a set of “Dogmatic rules,” and can be achieved through a balance of artistic concept and functionality, then it would be safe to say that Art Jewellery can mean different things to different people. Can we then question why it would seem that galleries are trying to use the same sales model for completely different products? Can we question whether what is being called Art Jewellery is even what the public wants? It would appear as though there might be a disconnect between what galleries want to exhibit and what people want to buy. I find it very interesting that in an artistic movement that was founded on the principle of “jewellery for the people,” that we no longer concern ourselves with connecting with those people, or making wearable jewellery for the people at all. It would also appear as though what started out as a movement for the people, has become incredibly elitist. We are no longer making jewellery that is attainable or understandable by the average person, but rather making Art Jewellery to be shown in vitrines at museums, art galleries, and in photographs. Jewellery that may never be touched or worn, essentially quarantined for eternity.

In an effort to branch out and connect directly with the world of contemporary art, Art Jewellery galleries have been attending fairs like Frieze, Basel, and Collect. While that strategy is poised to be very successful, it has yet to truly capitalize on that market. The attendees of these fairs are the elite, bourgeois, collectors of the new world. They roam the halls clad in Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, in search of their next purchase or “investment.” Many of these people are the dedicated followers of high fashion, already familiar with the feather neck pieces, and plastic ensembles that have accessorized the runway collections of the last decade plus. Consumers can purchase this type of jewellery from the houses that dress them, already perfectly paired and cleverly refreshed each season, stamped with the catwalk seal of approval. These consumers are educated and well travelled. They question the value of everything, and see the true value in nothing. You have already lost their interest if they have to ask “why.” To capture the attention of this market you need to be remarkable, spectacular, fantastic. They are willing to spend enormous sums of money to acquire what no one else has, and all we need to do is capture their imagination in that moment. However this is a perfect example of the aforementioned identity crisis. After attempting for years to separate jewellery from wealth, power and status, have we happily returned to that paradigm in a desperate attempt to save ourselves, or merely to certify and validate the jewellery as art?

Golden Age / Conclusion
The Golden Age was a period of prosperity for the planet. Food was abundant and a harmonious balance was said to have existed. While this certainly is not descriptive of the world we live in, a Golden Age of a different sort is on the horizon. A Golden Age of creativity, information, technology, and of connectivity. We know more about the world we live in than ever before, and possess the ability to share and communicate with one another in real-time. It was not long ago that jewellery cultures existed in their respective nations, disconnected by geography, and unable to collectively interact as we do today. We have everything we need at our disposal to create a movement rich in quality, originality, and innovation.

Globalization is a tool that can empower all of us and has led to the international creative fabric we have woven together as a jewellery community. Each of us is afforded the opportunity to share our creations with the world, and it is up to each of us to decide how we approach doing that, and how prolific we wish to be. By isolating ourselves in a bubble, we place constraints on what is possible. A global infrastructure is now in place to communicate our activities to one another, and while there are fundamental issues within that infrastructure, it does not need to be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Over the past two years I have started to explore areas outside the Art Jewellery spectrum with great success. The fashion, design and art worlds are interconnected with each other more than ever before. As I have proposed, our greatest triumph will be to create a new incarnation of Art Jewellery that ‘INFECTS’ each of those worlds, further connecting these disciplines through the act of adornment.

Cross-pollination between disciplines is quite common and can lead to unimaginable results. It is when two completely detached fields interact that we achieve real innovation and something truly “NEW.” Is there any benefit to continuing to isolate “artists making art jewellery” from the other creative disciplines?

Collectively we need to repair the ‘circle of jewellery,’ renewing the idea of art as adornment. Collectively we must accept that we are not competing with commercial jewellery and need to develop a real market of our own from outside the bubble in order to function. Collectively we need to look at the numbers and be realistic. Forget about exhibitions, photographs, and “virtual success” to focus on making jewellery that will sustain our careers and our field. Collectively we need to reaffirm our commitment to quality, originality and produce our best work.

A new movement within the movement is taking shape. It has yet to be identified or labeled, but the next “allotrope” of Art Jewellery will continue to emerge, and time will tell us what to call it. Art Jewellery is far from dead, but it has become detached from its soul. Each of us can be instrumental reconnecting Art Jewellery with its soul by bestowing a piece of our own upon the jewellery we produce and propagate.


Overview, “The Golden Standard of Schmuckashau” - Lisbeth den Besten,

Current Obsession, “Ted Noten Manifesto” - Ted Noten,

Norweigian Crafts, “After the End of Contemporary Jewellery” - Andre Gali,

Wallpaper Magazine, “Schmuck 2014: young contemporary jewellery talent refreshes the Munich fair” - Caragh Mckay,

Klimt02 -

Art Jewelry Forum -